Fairbanks, Loonies & The Road To Destruction
Recently retired and ready to spread their wings, Len and Faith Todd wanted to do more with their time than just wait for the grandkids to stack up. Avid travelers, they purchased a Toy Hauler with the expressed purpose of doing some snowmobiling in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula … but another motivation waited, unspoken. Tour Alaska. Trip of a lifetime. They waited. They researched. They prepared. In late June 2009, the trip of a lifetime began. During the trip, Faith and Len blogged about their adventures and kept a growing audience of friends and family rapt with attention and not a little bit jealous. This chapter covers August 8th – August 12th, days 40 – 44 of their adventure.
Every adventurer has to eat, right? So here’s a couple of tips for all you intrepid RVers heading out on the road to Alaska. First, buying groceries in Canada can be a bit loonie – and not just because that’s what they call their dollar. This may mean something completely different to us Stateside, but every time you go grocery shopping in Canada, you have to pay a loonie to rent a cart. Funny, yes. Also completely true. In Alaska the carts are free, but good luck finding fresh produce. We suggest stopping by a farmer’s market every time you get a chance.
At the market in Fairbanks we were able to score some homegrown tomatoes, spinach, cauliflower and a good laugh at our expense. The laughter came courtesy of one of the vendors when we inquired about sweet corn. “Sweet corn?” she grinned at the silly tourist, “Honey, this is Alaska.” And speaking of honey, we did score some amazing “fireweed” honey at the Market.
After the Farmer’s Market we headed downtown to do some pure tourist shopping. Fairbanks on a Saturday in early August is fairly desolate, but we did find some unique little shops. Click here to read more about what there is to see and do in Fairbanks.
Upon returning to the truck we found one more thing we weren’t exactly looking for: a note. On it was a confession. Some poor guy had hit our truck. What are you gonna do? The new truck was going to suffer its first little love tap at some point. “Crash’s” note contained both his name and location, so we made a little detour to meet our new “friend.” After accepting his profuse apologies, we promptly placed the dent into our “for when we get home” file and headed away from civilization.
Out next stop was Pioneer Park on the outskirts of Fairbanks. This forty-four acre park has just about everything. Where else will you find an air museum and a railroad museum side-by-side with a square dance pavilion. We also saw the SS Nenana, the largest stern-wheel boat ever built west of the Mississippi. Adding to the eclectic panorama were an antique carousel, a miniature golf course, a replica mining camp, a theater and a row of log cabins that are home to craft and gift shops.
Sunday we hooked up and headed out of Fairbanks. There was one more stop on our tour of Alaska: Skagway. We started out at 11:00 a.m. traveling south on the Alaskan Highway. This route takes you back across the border into Canada. You travel through the Yukon for the day and pick up South Klondike Highway west back into Alaska. Simple, right? Yeah, not so much.
The scenery along the Alaskan Highway is incredibly beautiful. The road itself, however, is horrendous. Bumpy and uneven with entire stretches torn out and replaced by gravel. Len was in the driver’s seat for this leg of the trip. The stretch of road from Tok, Alaska to Whitehorse, Yukon is well documented as being the worst. This particular piece of the open road had already gotten its shots in, nicking our windshield only a few days after we bought the new truck.
Nearly seven hours after we hauled out of Fairbanks, we crossed into Yukon. In an effort to put a fair chunk of this awful road behind us, we kept on for another two-and-a-half hours. We stopped at a gravel pull-off to camp. The spot was beautiful, alongside a very scenic lake. With plenty of light left to set up, we hopped down out of the truck and made a very unsettling discovery: of the four tires on our Hauler, three were shredded and one was missing. Just. Gone. Add to that, our rear axle was hanging by a thread.
There we were, camped in the dictionary definition of “no-man’s land” and we were going nowhere. Let me paint a picture for those of you back in the world of technology. We had no cell phones, no On-Star, no AAA and no clue where the nearest town was … or, when found, if that town could be of any help whatsoever. With only a few minutes of daylight left, we decided to turn in and tackle the problem in the morning after a good night’s sleep. Even that was not to be. Shortly after sunset it began to rain. Not a drizzle, mind you. This was rain of biblical proportions. As the gravel we had parked on began to grow sodden, the lake near us began to rise. Len made several trips outside to check the water level and make sure we would not end up floating away. So, of course, no sleep was to be had.
The next morning was one of our most trying on this adventure. How did we escape and just exactly what did MacGyver do this time? We should let him tell that story, right?
Our story of the road to Destruction Bay literally destroying all or part of an RV’s suspension was nothing new. In fact, after hearing some of the horror stories from other travelers in the Great White North, we considered ourselves lucky have only sacrificed four tires and a few axle hangers to the road gods.
Once the Hauler was road-worthy again, we set out for Whitehorse. Five hours later we landed, set up camp and slept like logs.
Tuesday morning, August 11th, we left the Hauler in Whitehorse and took a day trip back across the border into Skagway. Travel brochures and websites tend to describe the scenery as “moonscape.” An apt description of the mountains, rivers and dunes that line the highway. Quietly stunning.
Skagway is a small coastal town on Alaska’s Inner Passage. It offers tons of little shops and great food. On the day we rode through, it also offered herds of cruise ship passengers who had disembarked from the three boats in the harbor. To escape the throng we headed over to Dyea, a deserted town that time forgot. This little burgh on the outskirts of Skagway boasted a population of 8,000 in the early 1900’s, now it’s little more than a forest. Both the gold that lured the residents there and the river that once ran through town are gone. Our self-guided tour was highlighted by landmarks along the way that told us what had been back in Dyea’s heyday. Though it was better than getting absorbed into the Cruise Crowd, the side-trip to Dyea felt more than a little eerie.
Wednesday morning we hauled out of Whitehorse and began the homeward leg of our adventure. The feeling was bittersweet. We are loving life on the road, seeing wonderful things and meeting amazing people; but it will be good to be home with family and friends again.
Our return trip promises to be just as breathtaking. Much of our route – including four days in Canada – will be the same, but, interestingly, some of the scenery has changed. We are seeing more wildlife along the roadway. The first day we saw four herds of bison and several young caribou as well.
The Canadians have been as friendly as rumored to be, but it will be good to be back in the US of A. No more paying a loonie to borrow a shopping cart at the grocery. At the time we wondered aloud if that discourages people from buying more; but, no, to them it makes perfect sense. Renting shopping carts … if you ask me that’s just plain loonie!
Of course, it’s a small price to pay for the fuel you need on such an incredible adventure!